Australian Marxist Review

Interview with comrade David Matters

Conducted on 30 September 2023, in Beijing (Part 1)

David Matters at the 1988 Congress of the Socialist Party of Australia. Photo: CPA

DM: David Matters

AMR: RB


AMR: Let’s begin with a few basics, where you were born, grew up, schooling, early work, and that sort of thing.

DM: I was born in Grafton, NSW. I’m the son of a railway worker, and also the son of a woman who came from probably rich origins and “unfortunately” married a worker. That had significance in my education. She was the one that more intellectually stimulated me, whereas my father gave me the class instincts.

We were not rich; we were quite poor. I learnt later that the effect of the loss of the Communist leadership in NSW railways union was most undoubtedly the cause of the lower wages and conditions we experienced, and what my father experienced.

The railways was a very feudalistic system. My father used to live in dread of what they called “bungs,” and my mother with her education would have to write the replies. A “bung” could be for anything, such as for the kerosene lantern going out in the signal. At one stage we had moved to at least six other locations. We were in Coffs Harbour, or just south of Coffs Harbour. There was an argument with a railway inspector for some reason and we were transferred straight into the middle of the Illawarra Ranges, in a little railway settlement with no electricity. Then we moved down to Wollongong and to the steelworks.

I went to schools like Unanderra, Coniston, and eventually came into Sydney when I was just emerging into my teenage years and ended up first into Hurstville and then into Bankstown.

AMR: Were either of your parents in any political parties?

DM: My father was a “thug” for J. T. Lang. He was born in Auburn; my mother was a Lidcombe girl. Lidcombe was the slightly wealthier suburb. She met him at a dance, her father and mother were High Church of England. Her father was from Lincolnshire had come here on the recovery as a paying passenger. He was in the English orders of the Masonic lodge. My mother came into society as a debutante of the “Eastern Order” of the[Masonic] Lodge. She was Protestant and he was Catholic.

AMR: Back in those times that meant a lot.

DM: Family history has it that my father’s uncle was an archbishop in Sydney, and that [the family] had land around Edgecliff. He gave it to the church, but he [the uncle] also visited the family to inform my mother and father that the children they were going to have would all be “bastards,” because it wasn’t a church-sanctioned wedding. They did the Aussie thing and let the blue cattle dog after them.

AMR: (Laughter)

DM: And there goes our inheritance. Reflectively, it was a bit more savage, because my father was actually born out of wedlock to his mother. We found that out when we buried my father, that his mother was one of those “Sydney widows.” It was 1910 when he was born. In 1913 he was adopted by the man she married, and who gave us this name, Matters. Shortly after, 5 or 6 years later, she was divorced, and that man went off to have another 13 children with another woman. This was pretty common in Sydney in that period.

AMR: Yeah, it was.

DM: My parents lived through the Great Depression and I was raised on stories about how horrific it was. One of the stories was how they tried to force the price of oranges up. They took tonnes of oranges and poured kerosene over them and threw them into the harbour.

My mum grew up as a young, reasonably wealthy woman, despite the fact that her father went broke during the stock market crash [at the beginning of the Great Depression]. But “broke” for a capitalist is different than broke for a worker. He managed to buy a job in the railway workshops as an engineer.

The stories she would tell of people coming begging for food at the door. She would have been about 14 or 15 in 1929. So this is how I knew about those tragic events.

AMR: You would have heard about these things firsthand, as a kid growing up hearing about this sort of thing.

DM: I paid attention. Our family was one that discussed things. Events and politics were not banned from children. Difficulties of the family were not banned from children – the difficulties of renting houses, the different behaviours. One instance was when we were moving from a housing commission. My father had a rather bad temper, picked a fight with a guy inspecting the house. Of course, that bureaucrat took away our bond. So you can see these instances of injustice.

We rented a house thereafter from a Salvation Army woman. We had aunties and uncles in pictures in the Salvation Army. But she basically put us in a slum tenancy, right outside the door of the steelworks. I ended up with bronchial asthma out of that adventure. She would sit and talk to us about God, and I looked but I couldn’t see him. She said heaven was up there in the sky.

You would meet people in your life … I remember up near Summer Tank there was a woman living in a house. She may have been First Nations – I don’t know. But my first experience was with what the treatment was like of “the others,” so to speak. I remember my parents tugging at me when I was about 5 or 6 years old, saying “don’t touch them, don’t touch them.” Being a child, you do what you do – you touch. And some dust came off and I thought I had broken one of the First Nations people. Because that was how alien [they seemed to be]. Although the practice of sneaking into the settlements by white men was very common. And that formed part of the family history, although we don’t necessarily need to go into that.

My father would tell me how – when they were living in Burke – that these inspectors, the railway inspectors, would bash an Aboriginal person for three shillings or less – threepence I think it was – for the [train] fare. The injustice towards First Nations people was apparent in the bush.

AMR: You grew up in the bush too.

DM: I grew up in the bush. I was brought up with an understanding that they [First Nations people] were a people. We had pictures of people still living in tribal society. When my family was there in the rural areas, there were tribal Aboriginals. I think one person – I don’t know whether it was a nickname or a real name – was called King Billy. That was around the Burke area.

Coming into the schools in Sydney, there was one Aboriginal young person in our high school and he was copping it. They were giving it to him because he was supposedly from La Perouse. There was a terrible persecution and racism.

AMR: You mentioned that you went to a couple of schools in Sydney.

DM: In Sydney, I started at Hurstville Primary School, which was quite an advanced place. I qualified to go to Sydney Technical High, but my father got geeed up by his work mates and moved us to Bankstown. Although I’d qualified to go to that school, my parents weren’t prepared to pay for the bus fare to go there. The Bus Fares were expensive I got a free travel on Eldridge Transport to Bankstown High School. My father ended up in a week-long dispute with the Education Department, because he thought Punchbowl High was a more progressive high school than Bankstown. So he held me up, which impeded my education a little. It also made me stand out, because I was a bush kid and because I spoke “Strine.” So I would get a lot of “how ya goin’ Daaave” -from the “Dad and Dave” movies. I was taught “English” by the migrant Children, who spoke better English than I did.

AMR: What age did you leave school?

DM: I left school when I was 18, but I’d left school twice before based on annual jobs in the Public Service. My sister was influential in the Public Service, and I sat the exams and passed them twice to become a clerical assistant first at the Department of Civil Aviation and then in the Department of Taxation. Then a third time, which I think was the final time, and I moved from Taxation to Medibank. When I was at those places, it was to get some money. I was able to continue high school because I was on a scholarship. I was able to pass some exam and they gave the family $400 a year for me to go to school.

At Bankstown Boys High School, I was in the group of top-performing students. Then my mother became ill with cancer. That had a deleterious effect on my education and my life. I hate watching those Smith Family ads, because they never came for us even though we donated furniture to them. I took over the running of the house when I was about 16 or 17, did the cooking, put my fathers bets on at the TAB, all those sorts of things.

AMR: How old were you when she died?

DM: I was just approaching 16.

AMR: Wow.

DM: Which is a pretty harsh thing in your life. The problem we had was that health care was not really free in NSW. I was surprised to learn during one of the party campaigns that it was once. My mother was worried about the cost of going and getting treatment, and doctors weren’t like they are today. Doctors were considerably middle-class and arrogant. They wouldn’t talk to families, they wouldn’t talk to people about illnesses. It was a big thing seeing a doctor. I never saw a doctor until I was about 15, apart from when I was born. I never when to a dentist until I was 18. I stopped seeing him, so I’ve kept some of my teeth.

The diet for working people was pretty awful. For our family at least it was pretty ordinary. It was nothing to consume two kilograms of sugar [a week], which of course is what affects the teeth. Pork mince was pretty common and the use of dripping as an oil.

I can remember when the Whitlam government was elected, there was a huge change in our lives. It was the first time I ever tasted beef. We used to have lamb, and most families would buy – when we lived in country areas – a side of lamb. Refrigeration wasn’t very good, and I can tell you the lamb would smell a little bit by the end of the fortnight.

I remember my father talking about the 1917 general strike. My father’s father was a 1917 striker, and he talked about them starving nearly to death during that strike and he talked about them eating rotten meat. Now, most people will think, oh yeah …

AMR: It’s a “bit off.”

DM: You think about what I’ve just said about what we thought. Most people would think that what we were eating was rotten. But we would think it was just OK, passable, edible. The rotten meat was at the stage of the maggots. Given everything probably would have been better to cook up the maggots.

My father wasn’t a pleasant person for my mother to live with. We did want her to leave him, but there were no single mothers’ pensions. We weren’t like the current prime minister – connected. That’s why I find his stories interesting, and hope that he at some time comes clean and says that his mother claimed a widow’s pension and had no other choice. Now, I don’t condemn her for that, knowing how hard life was for my mother. Women were treated much more differently in that period. My older sister was put into a home, because she would truant and run away from Burke and go to Sydney. We were always told that she was in boarding houses, but she’d virtually been pushed into a certain industry and worked her way up into management. Some people on the Left might find that a hard way of looking at things, but that’s my sister.

My other sister wasn’t very good at nursing. She got pregnant to a few doctors, or at least one of the doctors, and two of the children were adopted out. But that was very common for working class women in country areas.

AMR: That was not that uncommon for working class women.

DM: Taking the children was common. The best threat that our parents could make to make us behave was “the government will take you away.” We believed it, because they had already taken our older sisters.

Boys could get into a lot of trouble. My brother got into a fair bit of trouble in Wollongong. He unfortunately won a “ballot” and it got him a uniform. It probably destroyed a part of his life, because he wasn’t the kind of young man that should have been put into the military. He ended up dishonourably discharged, because he took off to see a woman that he’d married as the marriage was breaking up. The experience in Wollongong was that my brother had joined a bikie gang and got in with a group of people. He got arrested first for breaking and entering. What had actually happened was that he was as drunk as a skunk, and his mate was knocking over the local Woolies, and he’d gone and helped his mate get caught. The times being what they were, the aristocrats in Wollongong, in The Mercury –a horrible tabloid – would write the story up and you would have to deal with the family issues at school. The judge made himself famous by offering two dollars for a haircut for my brother’s mate. That was in the [tabloid] article and I remember reading that.

Wollongong was an interesting place, politically very active. I am sure the Party was there, although my knowledge of the Party was very scant.

AMR: We’re talking about the general students’ strike.

DM: I think it was around the 1968, there was a Democratic Labor Party Council elected in Wollongong. Anyone that thinks that a right-wing government doesn’t have an impact on the people is mistaken.

AMR: This is Bob Santamaria’s bunch, isn’t it?

DM: Yeah, this is Bob Santamaria’s bunch. The process of council elections, particularly – that I know of – in NSW was that property considerations were the basis of council elections. There was not actually a franchise for everyone. I can remember a discussion between my parents over this issue. They made the election for the council non-compulsory. Mainly the more conservative Catholics in that city organised and succeeded in getting the Democratic Labor Party elected to the council. When they did that, one of the things they did that first had an impact on me – I was only a young student at Thirroul Primary by then, which was a bit more of a wealthier area around Wollongong – was to put a charge on all sporting fields. So we turned up for our Friday sport and there was a council inspector looking for a fee from the teacher. We’re looking in our pockets and we’ve got no money in them. Teachers got no money. So of course, no sport. They must have done the same to the Wollongong High School.

AMR: These were school sports.

DM: School sports, weekly school sports. I remember when the whole of the Wollongong High School emptied out and marched on the City Hall. I think there were probably other comrades in the area, but when you are looking at these events as a young child you don’t see the organisation, you just see the spectacle.

While all this was going on the Vietnam War was raging; conscription – as I said my brother was conscripted. The violence of the ruling class was still unrestrained. Hangings were still a thing. I remember the last hanging was of a fellow called Ryan.. who was the brother, it turned out, of the secretary of the Tramway Union. The police weren’t your friends. The police were an alien class force. You lived in fear of these things. The process that was going on at the time – we were watching television, and television had just come in – and you would nightly – and I was a young child under 12 – see American soldiers murdering Vietnamese. The interesting thing about the Vietnamese was that they were like me. They had poor clothing. They were poor people. We didn’t identify with the Americans. They were rich; they were fat. This was having a dramatic impact.

AMR: Back then it was just the ABC in black and white.

DM: In black and white. You probably heard that Skyhooks song “Horror Movie”. The line goes. “it’s the 6.30 news.” People paid a licence fee. We lived in the bush near Coff’s. When visiting relatives in Sydney you would hear a lot of scurrying around. People would cover their sets with doylies and hope the set would go cold. They could not afford the licence fee. The Menzies government had signal detecting vans circulating the suburbs and fining people for not paying their fees.

AMR: I remember the first television set on the street, and my parents got one about a year later and it was just the ABC.

DM: There were commercial channels. I saw the execution on TV of the Vietnamese hero, executed by the American soldiers. The hatred for the American soldiers was palpable. I was brought up, and my father was brought up, with a fairly anti-American sentiment. I think some of that was residual from the behaviour of US troops in Australia during the second world war. I think it is sanitised in those articles, but some of the outrages that occurred in Brisbane would have concerned atrocities against women.

AMR: In regard to the student strikes in Wollongong, were they successful in getting the policy to pay for sporting facilities overturned?

DM: I can’t quite recall, because I think there was an election again and the (DLP) council was forced out. I don’t think they needed to bring in compulsory voting. I think most people turned up to vote to get rid of that council.

AMR: So all of that left quite an impression, being a school student and seeing whole schools go out on the streets.

DM: The impression stayed with me, because when I moved to Sydney the moratorium movement was further developing. But before that, when we were going to primary school you would see the name of a draft dodger written in chalk outside the schools. That had an impact on you, because you knew what they were. As a young man, you are getting older and you are getting closer and closer to that magic age. So these were very much a part of the psychology of the generation I grew up with. They were facing these prospects.

The situation changed with the election of the Whitlam government. I was very excited. We thought it was almost a revolutionary government. By then we’d formed a little group of communists in the high school and two or three of our friends had declared ourselves and we were about 15 years old. I had received a book prize being good at economics, or commerce, and the prize I got was The Birth of Communist China and the Communist Manifesto, edited by A.J.P. Taylor.

AMR: Can I ask a bit more about that group. You say you had formed a communist group and declared yourselves as communists, but can you say what that means?

DM: We probably didn’t know. We thought we were going to change the whole world. Being young, we thought that our ideas were unique. We didn’t think that other people had the same ideas.

AMR: Were you aware that there was a Communist Party of Australia at that time?

DM: One of the friends in the group, his mother was a member of the Communist Party. There was also an old guy that sold the Moscow news in Bankstown. Still we knew very little.

This was when we’d moved to Bankstown and the Communist Party had a significant presence in Punchbowl. We didn’t know the differences within the parties. My mother bought me a book to try to turn me away. She found a book on sale in Woolies, Once a Jolly Comrade, written by a renegade John Sendy who was president of the party I think, which I didn’t read until much later when I knew people and I found it invaluable as an insight into the Party and the differences. It was an attempt by my mother to reverse my thinking. The reason I did not read it at the time was because he was obviously a rat and I was not going to cop his nonsense.

AMR: That book was on sale at Woolies?

DM: At Woolies. It was very cheap, otherwise my mother wouldn’t have bought it. It was in the discard section.

AMR: That’s very interesting. So there was an awareness as a teenager in school that something was going on and that you would identify as communists. As you say, at that age you think you know everything and you look back and you think you probably didn’t know much, but there was something already that was directing you …

DM: Poverty.

AMR: Poverty? Life experience? Family experience?

DM: The reactionary teachers were better at recruiting us towards communism than the progressive ones. In Primary School, when we in South Berkeley, we had a Social Studies teacher who was a full-on liberal, so we hated him from the beginning. He would give us a lecture on the dangers of the Soviet Union. When I first heard about the Soviet Union I was 10 or 11 years old and I wrote a little paragraph, which for me was extreme writing, and I wrote that Communism was a good idea because the people won’t go hungry anymore. I’ve experienced hunger.

AMR: Direct life experience. You’ve been reflecting on the name of the draft dodger written in chalk out the front of the school, getting up to that age when you realise the brutality of the ruling class, poverty in the family, and so on. All of this brings out that the observation on communism is a logical and rational outcome. If you stop to think about for a moment, that’s the answer.

DM: When I got sent to Bankstown, it was a punishment school. The NSW Education Department used to punish teachers on certain grounds because of politics and on the basis of union organisation. Bankstown was the sort of school where they would punish teachers by sending them there. The attitude towards the working people was that we couldn’t be taught. A lot of the teachers took the view that we were just there for factory fodder: get us through, do these classes, they found people like me to be troublesome.

At school, this friend whose mother was in the Communist Party thought he’d found a group we (our group)) could take over. He’s still with the Trotskyists, by the way. It turned out to be a group of Trotskyists called the Communist League. We went to meet them in the back of the Baby Health Centre in Glebe. They were a group of university students who seemed quite elderly to us.

AMR: (Laughter).

DM: We were convinced we were going to take them over. I remember at one stage that I’d come across the East Wind Bookshop and bought a whole library for about two dollars of Marxist classics. I started reading them and explaining them to the university students, who couldn’t be bettered by a young high school student so they had to go off and read them for themselves.

There were some interesting people in the group. There was a doctor who worked with the Aboriginal Health Service. Marcia Langton was a member, and I still regard Marcia as a friend. Her experience in life was totally different from mine. There was John McCarthy, who was the principal of the group and eventually became an anaesthetist at Prince Charles Hospital in Brisbane. We still have kind feelings for each other, although our politics differed.

They didn’t seem to have any direction, but they were quite capable of writing, of putting newspapers together. We were at a meeting – they called them “conferences” – and that’s when the Socialist Workers’ Party arrived and started setting up another Trotskyist group. There’s a lot of internecine behaviour amongst the Trotskyist groups. There was another group that used to pester the people in Bankstown and they were called the “Healeyites.” They tried to make themselves more “workerist.”

AMR: I’d like to ask you to explain a little about these various groups, since not all readers will know who the “Healeyites” are. I think more people will know who the Socialist Workers’ Party was. Can you tell us a bit about the nature of these groups, their history, and how they became involved in this sort of activity? You were starting to say something about the “Healeyites,” but why were they called the “Healeyites”?

DM: It was after a British fellow called Jim Healey, and he was their guru. All of these groups were formed out of splits in the so-called “Fourth International.” They each had different names and different approaches. There was another group called the “Canonites” and they were the Socialist Worker’s Party group. Another group were the “Mandelites” and they were the Communist League, a minority group. And there was another group who were followers of Michel Pablo, which were related to the group around Balmain that attacked comrades Jack McPhillips and Bernie Thornton in the Ironworkers’ Union. They were closely related to Bob Gould.

All these groups had their start in the radicalism of the Vietnam War. I think a lot of them started out in the same grouping, with a terrible name, “Screw” (an acronym). There was a fight between Jim Percy, who was one of the main gurus (the Percy brothers) of the Socialist Workers’ League, as they were then, and Bob Gould. [The fight] was over the assets in the bookshop, which originally belonged to that group. Gould taught some good political lessons: how to take a dive. They had a television crew filming the argument in the bookshop and one of the Percy brothers threw a punch at Gould, but didn’t get him. Gould did the job, dived, and got the bookshop.

AMR: A question about the different groups, with the constant changes among the Trotskyists: would you say that in each case they were following a particular person, a “false prophet,” guru, rather than anything that was based on principles. Was it more about the person they were following or was it more about party principles and the sense of the following the “correct path”?

DM: They had all the hallmarks of sects. They were grouped around individuals, with different interpretations of the same material. It was almost a religious organisation. They would split hairs, with eternal arguments over whether the Soviet Union was a form of workers’ state, or a state capitalist society. [One time the argument] went on for eight hours in the back of the Baby Health Centre. All I got out of that was a headache, and a disdain for that sort of hair-splitting.

There was a process that was initiated somewhere … by then I was still very strongly Trotskyist. I had to read lots of Trotsky’s works. The Socialist Workers’ Party probably had better collections of them. The process was an operation called “fusion,” where they would take two groups and put them together. It didn’t matter whether they were related or not politically, but it was just to force them together. Usually as a result of that [process] some people were expelled, some people were thrown into different places. They had the belief that factions were important, but they formed factions only in the time leading up to a conference. But factions often lead to splits. The issue of factions was not resolved and the usual result was that the group was expelled. That was also a way of identifying people who were “heretics” to the sect. So I learnt a lot about factionalism.

I ended up in the Socialist Workers’ Party after a “fusion.” The person I was living with, my partner at the time, was very heavily into the Trotskyist groups. She came with a view that we were taking a “turn to industry.” Until that time, I was employed in the Federal Public Service and I was working for Medibank. I had been active in the forerunners of the CPSU, the public sector union. I had been an activist and led the march to Town Hall for the Medibank strike in 1976. Being an 18-year old, I was enthusiastic to get the general manager off the footpath and onto the street. Some of the political activity was my spontaneity and creativity.

AMR: Comrade, you said you wanted to step back a little.

DM: Well, I should explain that when I entered the workforce I started in taxation. I worked in taxation before it was computerised. It was all paperwork, and I started in the records division. Then I worked in the Other Taxes Ledger Division (OTLD), and the responsibility was collecting these taxes and paying out government incentives. Our job was to collect revenues from miscellaneous taxes, like withholding tax, and also to pay export incentive grants. I did try to offset some export incentive grants to some large companies, because that was my job, to cover taxation bills. And I nearly terminated my career there, because tax lawyers employed by the large companies whose payments I offset the grants against went ballistic apparently they don’t pay tax if they can avoid it, or by avoiding the payment for quite a long time they invest their tax bill on the short term money market.

The other issue I found had was with regard to farm revenue. When an investor usually what are called Hunter Street farmers bought a farm, the first five years of income was averaged and that’s what they paid tax on for the rest of the operation of the farm. This often resulted in no income tax from corporate farms as they ran at a loss for the establishment period of the farm So there was a range of those things that we were dealing with in that area. You were always told to be non-sympathetic to anybody not paying their tax bill, no matter whether they had brain cancer or whatever. One of the worst calls I got was a person who had brain cancer, and I ended up just talking for quite while. That was taxation. The exit from taxation was to move to Medibank.

AMR: Soon after the election of the Whitlam government?

DM: No, this was well after the election.

AMR: Correct me if I am wrong, but the Medibank legislation actually required a special sitting of both the lower and upper houses to get the legislation through. So it was actually later, after the initial election in 1972.

DM: I can recall being on one Medibank strike when I was still in taxation in 1975-76. I didn’t go to Medibank until 1976, I think. There were two general struggles around Medibank. The first was to get it instituted, and the second was to keep it, Fraser ran the coup in1975 while I was in High school I attended all the big rallies in Hyde park and the Domain, Medibank was still becoming operational under Fraser and the ACTU was leading a struggle. By that time, I was working at Medibank, which was the Health Insurance Commission. This was the actual employer. Around that time, they brought in Medibank Private. The Health Insurance Commission was one of the more political organisations to work for. There were some of the best public sector organisers I ever met in my life. Bert Coates was the general manager and one of the best organisers.

AMR: Were you a member of the union at that point?

DM: Yes, I was a member of two unions. I was a member of the Federated Clerks Union Taxation Division, and a member of the Australian Commonwealth Employees Association. I couldn’t see the sense in having two unions, so I joined both. I couldn’t pick between them. I was also a member of the Labor Party at the same time. After Whitlam’s overthrow, I joined the North Bankstown branch of the Labor Party, which was Paul Keating’s branch.

AMR: What was the union density in the workplace of those two unions at that time?

DM: 60-80 percent, maybe 60-70 percent. Most people were members of the union. The union practice on the job: what mystified me was that the way we were organised was that someone would come along and say, “we’re going to have a council meeting.” I went to this meeting, and I was elected to this council. They did it in a more surreptitious way. The operations of unions couldn’t really be in the open, but they didn’t seem to be opposed. So there seemed to be a de facto arrangement. Certainly nothing like the era that came later. I was working at Medibank, and I kept paying two union dues. I was pro-union. I worked with whatever union would work with me. The presence of the union on the job was not high, but they did meet and had organisations.

The same occurred in the Labor Party. Factions were banned in the Labor Party. I remember being invited to join an organisation called the “Steering Committee,” which I think was the Left. This must have been interesting then, because I’d come from a right-wing branch, which was the Paul Keating branch. Keating had very strong control over the branch, but it seemed like there people who voted on those things who weren’t alive. The organisation was mostly old people. Labor party branches can move a lot of motions but the political or parliamentary party is a different party. Keating was a good orator. I remember him giving an anti-war speech on ANZAC Day at our local school.

AMR: What prompted you to join the Labor Party?

DM: The Trotskyists always practised what they called “deep entry.” There was a view that they should join either the Communist Party or the Labor Party and work to take over the organisation. The job as a Trotskyist was to build support. Quite often they used to influence Young Labor organisations to their side.

AMR: I think I know the answer to this question, but you would have identified yourself as belonging to one of these Trotskyist organisations when you joined the Labor Party?

DM: You would join as a member. They never proscribed the Trotskyists; they proscribed the Communist Party.

AMR: So while the Labor Party and the Communist Party were fighting it out with each other, the Trots tried to get, you know …

DM: It was part of the thinking. That’s how they would develop the revolution. They would take over the Labor Party. It wasn’t always clear.

AMR: When you were part of the Socialist Workers’ Party were you aware of its particular orientation?

DM: Well, they had to convince you that if you worked hard and built the organisation that the revolution would follow. It was only a matter of how hard you worked. So when we were working on campaigns, for example, we worked on the anti-uranium campaign, and I was heavily involved in the movement against uranium mining. That was a mixed movement. At times it had people like Jack Mundy. A lot of those comrades were not as active in the organisation. Whereas the Trotskyists were active, all the time. So we would do a lot of the hard-yard work, like painting banners and that sort of thing, and effectively building the demonstrations.

I can remember having a stoush with Jack Mundy at one of the meetings. We were also active in Chile solidarity. We had a demonstration of Solidarity with Chile and we had our slogans another group what might have been the Socialist Party and Communist Party of Chile came with different slogans. We were shouting at each other and trying to shout each other down with slogans just outside Martin Place. That was the bizarre behaviour that came out of this. But the Trotskyists never seemed to go anywhere, never seemed to get any further.

AMR: What was the nature of the membership of the Socialist Workers’ Party? What kind of jobs were people doing?

DM: Many of them were students. Some of them were professionals. Very few of them were workers. When they did the “turn to industry” that was the first time. They had members like (Michael) Costa, who became an MP in the NSW government. He was a particularly obnoxious person.

AMR: He became a minister in the NSW (Labor) government as well.

DM: He was obnoxious when he was in the Socialist Workers’ Party. I can’t say that I liked him. I think I came close to an encounter with him at one stage.

AMR: Even with a name like “Socialist Workers’ Party,” there were actually relatively few workers in the party.

DM: It was a big change for me to go to the Socialist Party from the Communist League Socialist Workers Party background. I had to learn to live in a different class milieu in the Trots fairly Petty-Bourgeois some might say, and when I came back I had to lose some of the behaviour that they instilled in me. The thing about them as an organisation was that they were demanding poverty, virtually, of their members, because they demanded a lot of money. They called it “Bolshevik discipline.”

The other thing about them was the organisational structure. There always seemed to be people who could rise to the leading positions very quickly. I can remember holding up one of the youth conferences; it was held up for a long period of time, because there were some comrades who knew how hard I worked and who wanted to put me onto the national committee. But they were not having a bar of me on the national committee. So I wasn’t in the favoured style.

I probably should jump to when I went to Brisbane. It was part of the “turn to industry.”

AMR: With the “turn to industry,” did that entail a change of jobs?

DM: Yes, I had to leave the public service, which horrified my family. I had no job. When I arrived in Brisbane, I had to find a job. We thought we were going to become workers. With all our audacity, we drove up in my car to the gates of General Motors Holden, in Acacia Ridge. The security guard must have had a laugh for quite a while and showed us where the car park was. Then we came in to get the interview with the employment manager. He said to us, “we’re not employing clerks.” So we pumped out our chests, the group of us, and said, “we’re not clerks.” I imagine the man had a lot of fun.

AMR: How many were in the car?

DM: There were four or five of us. One was an Andrew Honey. He got a job in spot-welding, later in the red oxide booth. He would be covered head to foot in red oxide. Those that worked in Spot Welding had burn marks on their overalls. I got a job on the wet deck. Another couple got jobs in that area, and one got a cushy job. Within a week, at least two of them had been sacked by the management. The approach of the Socialist Workers party was that we would not take union positions, the leadership wanted us to tell the workers about sexism all the time and correct their language.

The thing about General Motors is that they were very careful about organisation. No two workers working beside each other spoke the same language. They all communicated with hand signals. At one stage I was coming to work with a group of Greek comrades, who were talking about the Communist Party. Our chief shop steward was a Socialist Party member, and he built a team up and wanted to take leadership over the union. The union was run by a group of right-wing trade unionists, who had all been to the Harvard Trade Union School. Interesting for comrades to note is that had the chief shop steward any political sense, he would have seen how green we all were and would have had himself a bevy of new recruits to follow him everywhere. What he did though was form an alliance with the right wing against what they thought were the Trotskyist rabble.

We actually came into a general meeting of the union, and they hadn’t had a quorum for ages. We didn’t know the meeting procedures or anything. If we’d done any study, we’d have done enormous damage to the right wing. They were having an election and they said we needed to confirm it. Had we been organised; we would have helped them not confirm their election and force them out. We were at another meeting where there had been a strike at one of the bigger truck building companies. A group of workers were upset at the outcome where the strike had been busted by the Union Officials. Because they’d been smart enough to count the bundy cards the workers had found that more people had voted in that strike return than were actually on the bundy clock.

The vehicle builders ended up amalgamating into the AMWU and taking it over with a turn to the right. I got close to being elected as a shop steward in that place, but they closed that whole section, or put two sections together, amalgamated them, so there was no election for the shop steward’s position. General Motors sacked another worker who had nominated for the delegate’s position. The Union leadership were in cahoots with the company.

It was a steep learning curve. I was 21 years old. The workers were looking for leadership and they were willing to elect us as shop stewards. The conditions were atrocious. The plant was archaic. Word got back that the Japanese were laughing at the “working museum,” and it really was. We were doing things that robots were doing in Japan.

General Motors were introducing “just in time” method. This meant that parts were arriving as they were assembled to the cars. This made for lower costs but made supply chain issues more important.

Those who may not be familiar with an assembly line would not understand how it reduces the number of movements of the worker thus saving time for the company. Tasks are reduced to the simplest and most boring repetition. You are controlled by the line.

Of interest to us was a tour that proposed ending the assembly line and introducing a full assembly as a way of diversifying tasks. Volvo was in the forefront of this. I am still fascinated by how robotisation and automation has changed the whole process.

Part two of the interview will continue in the next issue of AMR.